The Mystery of Capital
‘Capitalism appears increasingly as the leitmotif of a self-serving guild of businessmen and their technocracies.’ This is not the sort of assertion you’d expect to read in a book that comes with fulsome praise from Margaret Thatcher, The Economist and the godfather of neoliberal economics himself, Milton Friedman. But then, the Peruvian intellectual pragmatist Hernando de Soto is a legendary jester to this ‘self-serving guild’ and, most recently, to the venal Alberto Fujimori, the former dictator of Peru who is now a fugitive in Japan.
Which is not to imply that de Soto has nothing of interest to say. The Mystery of Capital invents and then confronts its own riddle: ‘Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else.’ He explores some diverting byways, particularly the notion that poor people have more assets than they are permitted to realize. This, he concludes, is because they lack private property rights. How so? Well, triumphant capitalism in the West has, it seems, simply forgotten about them everywhere else. It just needs a gentle reminder, presumably in the form of this eulogy from de Soto. According to Time, he ‘has heads of state from Haiti to Pakistan lining up for his advice’. They would be better off making plans to join Fujimori in Japan.
David Cromwell gives us a much more rewarding guide to ‘corporate plunder and the fight back’. Written in fluent, unpretentious prose, Private Planet is the best summary so far of corporate globalization and the urgent reasons there are to resist it. Anyone who wants to catch up and join in should start here. Perhaps it would be too much to expect new insights as well. Sometimes it’s enough just to be nudged very persuasively in the right direction.
RATING (De Soto)
Reflections on Exile
This book gathers together 46 of Edward W Said’s essays on politics and culture, written over the course of 35 years. Renowned both within and beyond the Palestinian diaspora, the experience of exile imbues everything that Said writes. He tackles grand themes such as nationalism, colonization and identity but also finds space for such diverse interests as Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan and the musical artistry of Glenn Gould. Whatever the subject, the author brings clarity of thought and intellectual rigour to its consideration. Although he can occasionally tend to the abstruse and academically rarefied (for instance in two essays on Michel Foucault, himself no stranger to obscurantism) his prose style is usually eminently lucid and comprehensible. The series of appraisals of other authors – Hemingway, Orwell, Conrad and Naipaul – is particularly absorbing and thought-provoking.
This erudite and humane book is a timely reminder that, alongside political resistance, there is such a thing as cultural resistance. Living well and treasuring learning can and must be a bulwark against oppression and the brainless violence of the powerful.
By The Sea
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s sixth novel tells the interwoven stories of two men and their families. Set in two seaside towns half-a-world apart, the book opens as Saleh Omar arrives in Britain on a dank November day to claim asylum. He has with him a mahogany box containing incense and a passport that claims his name is Rajab Shaaban. Although he understands every word said to him, he pretends to be unable to speak English and the immigration officials call upon Latif Mahmud, an expatriate academic, to translate.
Mahmud’s links with Omar are much closer than a shared exile from their homeland, the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar. As Omar’s application for refugee status is processed, the men tell their stories and the plot becomes a complex maze, winding back upon itself in an intricate pattern of trickery and betrayal, lies, debts and revenge. The personal tales are set against the nightmarish post-colonial history of Zanzibar which, after the departure of the British in 1964, suffered decades of massive political upheavals and brutal civil strife. Omar and Mahmud’s interpretation of these chaotic life-shattering events give the book its backbone and substance and make it, despite a measured and meditative style, an enthralling read.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was himself forced to flee Zanzibar during the events his book describes and in By The Sea he has transmuted personal experience into a novel which explores, with great depth and subtlety, the human histories behind the words we bandy about so freely and with so little understanding: exile, dispossession, displaced person, refugee, asylum-seeker.
Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott’s latest movie is a gory portrayal of the 3 October 1993 battle in Mogadishu that marked the climax of the disastrous US ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Somalia. A raid against warlord Muhammad Aidid goes badly wrong, leaving US élite forces stranded. Eighteen Americans die battling their way to safety, an event that triggered withdrawal from Somalia and the greatest humiliation of the US military since Vietnam.
The film boasts neither serious script nor character development: it is simply a bloody, blow-by-blow account of the ferocious battle. In this respect it remains true to the aim of the book by Mark Bowden on which it is based – to recount the personal heroics behind an embarrassing incident that the US Government would rather forget.
However, that the story stops there is problematic. It depicts the US soldiers as reluctant to kill civilians, whereas two-thirds of the 7,000 to 10,000 killed during the intervention in Somalia were women and children.
It is highly racialized, the camera lingering poignantly over each American death whilst Somalians are culled in droves like cattle. This patriotic tribute to the honest soldier pitted against barbarian hordes ignores the reasons for the intense hatred that the US-UN occupation aroused. What began as a questionable Clinton publicity stunt descended into a grotesque rampage marked by massacres, looting, torture and rape. At any time silence over the politics behind so serious an episode would be troubling; with Somalia currently touted as a prime target in the US ‘war against terror’, it is inexcusable.
The Indian diaspora’s gaze at the world it left behind has two opposing traits: the mainstream one, an unproblematic romanticization of the homeland’s ‘glorious traditions’; and the marginal one, a desire to distance oneself from one’s past in order to look at it more objectively. Mira Nair is too intelligent not to take the second option and too shrewd in a business sense to risk alienating those who prefer the first. The result is Monsoon Wedding – a film which runs with the hares.
The film sets out to revel in the underbelly of the ‘Great Hindu Wedding’. A patriarch is actually a paedophile, the bride sleeps with her old lover, and various libidinous people infected by amorousness leap into each other’s arms. While this in itself is not a recipe for a film classic, one would have had fewer objections if the film’s situations were not so stereotypical that one could anticipate most of them. Nor is the painful dialogue much help – it merely embarrasses by its banality.
What adds insult to injury is the director subverting her own film by resolving all ‘troubled’ areas in order to produce a ‘feel-good’ film. The paedophile is thrown out; the bride, despite her cynicism, confesses her misdemeanours to the groom, who promptly chooses her honesty over her fidelity. The tent contractor marries the house domestic. The audience celebrates and the protagonists party away the last 20 minutes of the film. The end reverberates with energy otherwise missing throughout the film.
‘Feminists, we’re calling you. Please report to the front desk. Let’s name this phenomenon. It’s too dumb to bring us down.’ This isn’t the opening salvo to Le Tigre’s second album (that distinction goes to the catchy ‘Tour Theme’, with its dedication: ‘For the ladies and the fags, yeah. We’re the band with the rollerskate jams’), but it could well be. Rarely has an album, any album, worn its intent so unequivocally. Straight out of New York City, Le Tigre are Kathleen Hanna, JD Sampson and Johanna Fateman, a trio who, in punk’s tradition of direct action, not so much put the politics back into pop as ram it. It’s pointless to list the causes for which Feminist Sweepstakes takes up the cudgels because it would have a reductionist effect that the album doesn’t deserve.
With exhilarating speed, the album’s punch comes from its down-the-line vocals combined with no-messing guitar and keyboards. Lyrical reference-points may at times derive from key feminist texts, but the music has its origins in a homespun digital and guitars idea. Think X-Ray Spex or B-52s with samplers and you’d be on the right lines.
But is Feminist Sweepstakes only for the ladies and the fags? Might anyone who hasn’t followed Le Tigre’s transit out of the ‘riot grrl’ movement of the late 1990s, or the subsequent ‘queercore’ groupings, feel left out? No chance. ‘TGIF’ is a vote of courage for anyone who’s ever slaved in a dead-end job; ‘Keep On Living’ is a beat-support and ‘On Guard’ is a three-minute hymn of resilience to anyone who’s ever been on the outside. Le Tigre are fierce, but they never lose a beat.
Rock It To The Moon
Anyone inspecting the sleeve illustrations to Feminist Sweepstakes for clues on where to get more of the Le Tigre ethos, may be interested to see a little drawing of a record by Electrelane. That’s not to say that this precocious young band from the English south coast offer simply more of the same: it’s just a generous indication that there are other places where rousing energies are being put to creative uses.
Electrelane’s particular contribution to the feminist cause is framed in a very different way. Rock It To The Moon, the début album from the all-female Brighton quartet, is all but lyricless. Instead it speeds along, propelled by a dominating keyboard that sounds like it’s escaped from a classy 1960s spy film and some curtly executed guitar and drum supporting roles. At times Rock It can sound like a demented fairground organ, its constant acceleration a dangerous and thrilling thing – and, indeed, that’s much of the fun of it. Tracks like ‘Long Dark’ or the opener, ‘The Invisible Dog’ (a few barks and a naughty Pink Floyd quote amuse) fairly take the album into orbit.
And yet Rock It is also earthed in a more subtle mood. ‘Gabriel’ has a swampy gloom about it and ‘Many Peaks’, probably their most musically accomplished instrumental, uses muted brass and clarinet to draw out deeper resonances. Rock It is many things. A soundtrack album for one’s interior life, even a thank-you note to their heroines – it’s dedicated to some 30 diverse women, including Mo Mowlam, Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas and Aung San Suu Kyi. But above all it sends a message out: ‘You can do this too. What’s stopping you?’
Noise is a much bigger problem today than it was ever before. And so it is in the midst of the present cacophony that we’ve begun to listen very carefully to what is taking place around us with the hope that if enough people can be made aware of the facts, changes might be demanded and eventually brought about.’
When R Murray Schafer alerted the world to the deterioration in the quality of the soundscape back in 1973, little did he know that he would go on to inspire a worldwide movement of people interested in preserving and improving the soundscape. His book The Tuning of the World – originally published in 1977 – has become a classic. And even though Schafer himself has dropped out of the movement, retreating to the Indian River in Ontario to write outdoor ritual music theatre, his legacy lives on in the work of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE), its members and affiliate organizations.
Writing in 1991, Hildegard Westerkamp, a former assistant of Schafer and now the editor of the WFAE’s publication Soundscape, describes the aims of the project as follows: ‘Beyond fighting sound pollution, the task of sound ecologists is to design healthy and attractive sonic environments, sonic places. Continual sensitization of the ear, creative town planning, legislative action (noise abatement regulations), the design of acoustic parks and playgrounds and the innovative preservation of worthwhile sounds of past and present may be among the means to achieve such ends. This turning of the negative spectre of a polluted sound world into a vision where the sonic environment becomes a place for renewal and creativity has been the genius of the Project.’
Westerkamp admits that the WFAE’s membership is currently dominated by artists. But as the group’s vision for their fledgling international umbrella organization comes slowly into focus it looks likely that the emphasis will turn once again towards research and there are efforts to make links with other disciplines to help with this.
Many of the group’s members are professional sound recordists or electronic composers using environmental sound as their primary source material. Jim Cummings’ Earth Ear record label and mail-order company is the best single source for obtaining CDs by the artists in the field. The company’s catalogue contains many gems: from Douglas Quinn’s exquisite recording of Emperor Penguins at play in the Antarctic; through David Dunn’s recordings of life beneath the surface of a pond; to Daniel de Laurenti’s explosively close-range recordings of the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
If this mass production and technology-based work does not yet deal with the fundamental ecological issue of sustainability, there are other approaches that artists have taken. In the late 1970s Westerkamp produced a series of ‘soundwalk’ broadcasts for a Vancouver community radio station, Co-op Radio. ‘I was out in the field recording,’ she explains. ‘I did not always know when I started where it would lead me. I would comment on aspects of the sound environment that the listener wouldn’t know about – like the weather and the time of day – and give contextualizing information.’
Soundwalks without recording have been a popular tool in the sound ecologists’ educational armoury, whilst in the classroom active listening exercises and guided questionnaires have been used to encourage people to reflect on sound and its meaning and to become more aware of their sound environment and their relationship to it.
‘We are also trying to put the sound question much more on the ecological agenda,’ says Westerkamp. ‘Most environmental groups do not consider sound as part of their agenda, it often seems to be a luxury item. Even though they are concerned about it they are not necessarily willing to include it.
‘For acoustic ecologists, listening is always the fundamental on which everything else is based,’ she concludes. The hope is that a more conscious use of our most subtle sense might encourage a different way of relating to the world.